A screen shot from Half Life 2 shows characters Eli Vance and his daughter, Alyx.
By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
msnbc.com

A Bellevue, Wash., company that spent five years developing the sequel to its acclaimed computer game “Half Life” was victimized this week by an enemy more fearsome than the alien thugs that populate its make-believe world — a hacker who apparently penetrated its computer network, stole the game’s source code and posted it on the Internet.

“Ever have one of those weeks?” Valve Software founder Gabe Newell wrote on a gaming Web site Thursday announcing the theft of the “Half Life 2” source code and asking the gaming community for help in tracking down the villain. “… This sucks.”

The source code does not allow a person who downloads it to play the game, but it contains enough core programming that it could be used to create games with different graphics, said Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst with Wedbush Morgan.

“You can take that engine, which essentially just tells the characters how to interact with one another, and turn the scientist battling the aliens into a military guy battling Iraqis in the desert,” he said.

Intruder gained acces to e-mail
In his posting on HalfLife2.net, Newell, said that the source code was stolen by someone who was able to gain access to his e-mail account in September and install keystroke-logging software on several company computers.

“Around 9/19 someone made a copy of the HL-2 source tree,” he wrote.

Newell, who spent 13 years with Microsoft Corp. before leaving to start Valve Software, said the company also had been experiencing denial of service attacks against its web servers and Steam, a broadband software delivery platform the company operates, but stated that it was not clear whether the attacks were related to the theft.

Representatives of Valve did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

A source familiar with the case said federal agents were investigating. An FBI spokesman in Seattle declined comment.

The release of “Half Life 2,” currently scheduled for December, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year among computer gamers, who made the first game one of the most popular titles ever.

The game, described by fans as a cross between the “X-files” and Stephen King, stars Gordon Freeman, a scientist at Black Mesa Research Facility, who is forced to battle a horde of alien thugs after a freak accident opens up a portal to another dimension.

Previewed to rave reviews
In the sequel, which previewed to rave reviews at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in May, Freeman is joined by other humans in attempting to prevent the aliens from achieving world domination, as well as another alien race whose allegiances are unclear.

Though the theft stirred considerable buzz in the gaming community, and raised fears that the release of “Half Life 2” — originally slated for September — could be delayed beyond Christmas, observers said it was not expected to have a significant impact on the company.

Pachter, the gaming analyst, said that while other game developers could try to piggy-back on the “Half Life 2” code to create bootleg versions of the game, they probably would not be able to distribute their product.

“It’s a close community and it’s going to be difficult for someone to come out with a game and try to pretend they developed it themselves,” he said. “It would be like taking a copy of ‘Moby Dick’ and changing the names and saying you wrote it.”

Worries about ‘cheats’
Dave Kosak, executive editor at the gaming news site GameSpy.com, said the financial impact - if there is any - could come if gamers use the code to reverse-engineer “cheats” that allow them to defeat all comers in online, multi-player games.

“Once cheating becomes rampant, it’s worthless to play,” he said. “It’s just no fun.”

Kosak said that while the theft is something of a security black eye for Valve, it also is a back-handed compliment.

“It certainly reflects on their security, but it also reflects on the popularity of their product,” he said. “People went out of their way to penetrate their network and get their hands on it.” MSNBC.com’s Tom Loftus contributed to this report.

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